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  • 2013.08.19
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Peace Column

From Prague to Berlin

: Has President Obama dropped his vision for a Nuclear-Weapons-Free World?


Alyn Ware Global Coordinator, PNND


>>> Click this to read this column in Korean


On 5 April 2009 US President Barack Obama delivered a ground-breaking speech in Prague where he committed his presidency to pursuing the vision of a world without nuclear weapons. It was this vision and commitment, primarily, that earned Obama the Nobel Peace prize later that same year.

Comparing the elimination of nuclear weapons with the struggles that brought freedom to the Czech Republic and other Soviet States, Obama noted that “Just as we stood for freedom in the 20th century, we must stand together for the right of people everywhere to live free from fear in the 21st century. And as nuclear power -- as a nuclear power, as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to act. So today, I state clearly and with conviction America's commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons. I'm not naive. This goal will not be reached quickly… But now we, too, must ignore the voices who tell us that the world cannot change. We have to insist, "Yes, we can."

Four years later, are we any closer to a nuclear-weapons-free world? Is such a world indeed possible? Or was President Obama’s vision merely an attention-catching pipe-dream?

Indeed, Obama has faced considerable hurdles and set-backs in implementing the vision. The price tag US Republican Senators demanded for ratifying the START Treaty (a nuclear-stockpile-reductions agreement that Obama negotiated with Russia) was an extra $14 billion on top of the annual nuclear weapons budget of $56 billion to be spent on modernizing the U.S. nuclear weapons complex – something seemingly at odds with the commitment for nuclear disarmament.

A UN-sponsored conference which was supposed to be held in 2012 to commence the process for a Middle East Zone Free From Nuclear Weapons and other Weapons of Mass Destruction has not been held – due to continuing difficulties in securing Israel’s agreement to attend. The nuclear threat in North East Asia has increased. The possibility of Iran going nuclear lingers, and could stimulate military attack from Israel. NATO recently reaffirmed that it will remain a nuclear-weapons alliance so long as there are nuclear weapons in the world. And the other States possessing nuclear weapons – China, France, India, Pakistan, Russia and the UK – have not expressed any enthusiasm for implementing the nuclear disarmament vision any time soon.

Have these difficulties lowered Obama’s expectations and dampened his spirit for nuclear disarmament, or merely stimulated him to step up his action?

There are indications both ways. Last month in Berlin, President Obama delivered an other groundbreaking speech in which he addressed a number of issues in general terms, but was very specific on the issue of nuclear disarmament. He noted that “Peace with justice means pursuing the security of a world without nuclear weapons” and announced steps the US intended to take in the short-term, including further deep reductions in nuclear stockpiles, and commitments to send the Comprehensive Nuclear test Ban Treaty to the US Senate for ratification, and to ‘work with our NATO allies to seek bold reductions in U.S. and Russian tactical weapons in Europe.’

On the same day the White House released a new guidance from President Obama on the US nuclear employment strategy which appeared somewhat schizophrenic. Although it affirms a reduced role for nuclear weapons and makes a commitment to examine the policy of launch on warning ‘recognizing that the potential for a surprise, disarming nuclear attack is exceedingly remote’, it also affirms ‘significant investments to modernize the nuclear enterprise.’

The most likely explanation for the gap between President Obama’s visionary rhetoric and what he has actually delivered on nuclear disarmament was given by President Obama himself in Prague. “We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone.”

There are a range of political forces hindering progress on nuclear disarmament – whether that be the partisan political climate in Washington pushing Republicans into opposing President Obama’s initiatives, nuclear weapons corporations which benefit from the bloated nuclear budgets or other nuclear-weapon States (China, France, Russia and the UK) which are not ready to move with the US on specific nuclear disarmament measures.

Civil society help remove some of these barriers and free up the process for nuclear disarmament.

In the United States, one of the key arguments opponents of Obama put forward is that any measures to reduce nuclear stockpiles or the role of nuclear weapons undermines the protection that the US provides for its allies (NATO, Japan and South Korea) and under extended nuclear deterrence, and could thus lead to these countries deciding that they would develop their own nuclear arsenals.

Obama’s capacity to withstand such challenges is strengthened by statements nuclear from parliamentarians, mayors, government officials and other influential voices from these allies supporting his nuclear disarmament aspirations. Already some such statements have had an impact, including a letter from 204 Japanese parliamentarians calling for a policy shift to sole purpose and a letter from parliamentarians from NATO countries supporting Obama’s Prague vision.

One way to reduce the power of the weapons corporations is to shame them through divestment actions. Already the Norwegian and New Zealand governments, under pressure from parliamentarians and civil society, have instructed public funds (primarily pension funds) to offload all investments they had in corporations involved in nuclear weapons systems. If more countries followed suit, it could damage the image and share value of these corporations.

In tough fiscal times, there is perhaps a greater capacity to emphasise the opportunity cost of nuclear weapons expenditure. In the US, former Congressman Ed Markey (Co-President of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament) generated considerable traction for his SANE (Sensible Approach to Nuclear Expenditure) Act which proposes significant cuts in nuclear stockpiles and spending in order to help stimulate the economy and support environmentally sustainable enterprises. Now that Markey is in the US Senate there are possibilities that this challenge to nuclear spending will get even more traction.

Finally, one must not overlook some exciting new international developments which could help pave the way to a nuclear-weapons-free world. In March this year the Inter Parliamentary Union, which comprises over 160 parliaments in the world including most of the parliaments of the nuclear-weapon States and the NATO allies, agreed to make the principal topic for their work over the next year “Towards a Nuclear-Weapons-Free World: The Contribution of Parliaments.” Parliamentarians play a critical role in setting government policies, priorities and budgets. Parliamentarians from this number of parliaments working collectively for a nuclear-weapons-free world on a cross-party basis could thus play a very significant role in facilitating progress.

Also in May this year an exciting new UN process – the Open Ended Working Group on Taking Forward Multilateral Nuclear Disarmament Negotiations, started substantive work. Designed to kick-start multilateral nuclear disarmament negotiations following 17years of stalemate in the Conference on Disarmament, the OEWG got a way to aflying start and gives lots of promise for progress. However, it success will rely on the attention given to it by both civil society and governments.

Thus, we return to President Obama’s concluding comments in Prague and his plea to civil society to work together with leaders to enable the achievement of a nuclear-weapons-free world: “I know that a call to arms can stir the souls of men and women more than a call to lay them down. But that is why the voices for peace and progress must be raised together.”


* Alyn Ware is the Global Coordinator of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-proliferation and Disarmament. He also serves as the International Representative of the Peace Foundation, Director of Aotearoa Lawyers for Peace, Consultant at Large on the Committee on Nuclear Policy (USA) and the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms.

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